Indigenous leadership, salmon, and the benefits to us all

Photo: Graeme Lee Rowlands

Last Friday marked National Indigenous People’s Day, a part of Canada’s National Indigenous History Month. In the Columbia River Basin, salmon are a big part of the history of Indigenous peoples. Thanks to the leadership of Indigenous Nations and Tribes, they could become a big part of this region’s future – for everyone that lives here today.

A diverse crowd gathers in anticipation to begin releasing salmon into the Columbia River at the May 24th ceremonial release in Invermere, BC, which kicked off this year’s Bringing the Salmon Home Transboundary Tour. Photo: Graeme Lee Rowlands

Damming the river

With the construction of Grand Coulee Dam in 1939, the United States sealed off the upper Columbia River watershed from migrating salmon, breaking an ancient cycle that saw thousands of salmon return from the ocean each year to enrich land and people alike. The Canadian government granted explicit permission for this loss five years prior without consulting or even informing Indigenous communities (for more on this history, read here).

Subsequent Canadian construction of additional upstream dams without fish passage infrastructure entrenched barriers to historic salmon habitat. The U.S. also pushed the first salmon blockage 83 kilometres further downstream with the construction of Chief Joseph Dam below Grand Coulee, also with no passage for migrating fish.

Bring back the salmon

Despite this blow and other damages inflicted through colonization, Indigenous people never forgot the salmon and have never given up the fight to bring them back. Over recent years, they’ve made huge progress.

In 2019, the governments of B.C. and Canada signed a letter of agreement with the Syilx Okanagan, Secwépemc, and Ktunaxa Nations to collaborate on the reintroduction of salmon above the Canada-U.S. border. The provincial and federal governments, along with the Columbia Basin Trust, have since provided funding and other support for the Indigenous-led Bringing the Salmon Home Initiative.

Last year, tribes downstream along the upper Columbia River in the U.S. secured a USD$200 million commitment from the American federal government to support salmon reintroduction research and implementation below the border over the next 20 years.

This American commitment is especially exciting thanks to work in Canada that goes back much further. More than two decades ago, Indigenous nations secured legally-binding commitments for the installation of fish passage at two key Canadian dams — if the salmon make it back across the border from the U.S.

Adding passage facilities at these dams (Hugh Keenleyside and Brilliant) would allow salmon to return up the Columbia River as far as Revelstoke and up their full historic range into the Kootenay River and the Slocan Valley. There is also some supportive (though not legally-binding) language that applies to Waneta Dam, which is the first barrier to salmon’s path up the Pend Oreille River towards the Salmo (originally called the Salmon River). This means that if U.S.-based efforts to bring salmon back are successful, we could see salmon swimming across the border and returning to relatively large areas of their historic range in B.C.

Adding passage to Hugh Keenleyside Dam would open up Unit 5 to salmon that have swum across the border into Unit 1. Adding passage to Brilliant Dam would do the same for Unit 2. Unit 4 is blocked by both the Waneta and Seven Mile Dams. Map from the Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative (Ktunaxa, Secwépemc, and Syilx Okanagan nations and the BC and Canadian governments)’s 2019-2020 Annual Report.

Thanks to this visionary work, the stage is set to bring the salmon back home after more than 80 years without them. The beneficiaries are not just Indigenous people, but all of us who wish to live in an ecologically, culturally and economically vibrant region. And the benefits go beyond just the presence of salmon: to prepare for their return, we need to heal our lands and waters and fight climate change so that salmon, humans and all living things can thrive.

We should all be grateful to live in a place with such outstanding leadership on salmon reintroduction and so many other issues. But gratitude is not enough. Non-Indigenous people and governments need to give back.

At an individual level, we can spread the word about Indigenous-led salmon reintroduction and add our names to the Bringing the Salmon Home Initiative’s list of supporters. On an institutional level, governments in Canada need to ensure this work has the resources needed to continue flowing forward.

The author releasing a salmon fry into the Columbia River at the Bringing the Salmon Home Initiative’s May 24th ceremonial release in Invermere.